A day after Barnes & Thornburg partner Nancy Sullivan was shot to death in her home during an apparent domestic dispute, the Minneapolis legal community remembered the 57-year-old employee benefits specialist as a lawyer who—in addition to mastering the complexities of the federal tax laws governing retirement plans—devoted herself to improving the lives of children, particularly those who lacked a stable home life.
"I think that if Nancy could save one kid, she knew she had a great day," says Tina Syring-Petrocchi, a Barnes & Thornburg partner who worked alongside Sullivan in Minneapolis. "That’s just what her passion was."
In addition to her practice, Sullivan served on the board of directors for the Children’s Law Center of Minnesota, a not-for-profit organization that provides legal counsel to area foster children, and volunteered with Cristo Rey Jesuit High School‘s mentorship program, Hope Family Community Services, and other local organizations. At Barnes & Thornburg, she led pro bono efforts for the Minneapolis office and last year received a firmwide award recognizing her pro bono achievements.
As an advocate for the Children’s Law Center, Sullivan would persuade her Barnes & Thornburg colleagues to take on clients by appealing to their sense of duty. Syring-Petrocchi recalls that if lawyers told Sullivan they were too busy to take on a volunteer assignment, her friend would respond by saying, "’Well, if we don’t have the voice for the child, who does?’"
A Moorhead, Minnesota native, Sullivan earned her undergraduate degree from Minnesota State University in 1977 and a J.D. from University of North Dakota School of Law in 1980. She stayed in North Dakota to start her legal career before moving back to her home state to work at a variety of firms, including what was then Faegre & Benson; regional firm Gray Plant Mooty; Dorsey & Whitney; and The Parsinen Law Firm, which merged with Barnes & Thornburg in 2009 to establish the latter firm’s first Minnesota office. Sullivan’s career also included time in-house at a pension company and a foray as a school teacher in Arizona, according to Lynn Archer, a former Barnes & Thornburg partner now working in Portland.
Sullivan’s death came suddenly and violently Tuesday as she prepared to move out of a home she owned jointly with her boyfriend, Johnny Simpson, in the St. Paul suburb of Shoreview, Minnesota, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports. According to the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office, police responded to a report of shots fired inside the residence at about 10 a.m. Tuesday and arrived to find both Sullivan and Simpson dead.
Two other people, identified as Sullivan’s daughter, Cathleen Fay, and Fay’s boyfriend, Tony Brown, were injured and were being treated as of Wednesday at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, according to Ramsey Sherriff’s Office spokesman Randy Gustafson. A medical examiner began autopsies on the deceased Wednesday morning, Gustafson says, but exact causes of death and the sequence of events from Tuesday’s incident are still being determined.
"It’s just a shame the circumstances (of her death) are so horrifying, because her life—and what she’s leaving behind and the people she touched—is so much more than a statistic," says Archer, who first met Sullivan when she joined the Parsinen firm to do part-time employee benefits work in 2006. "There’s a person and a lawyer and friend, and she’s going to be so missed."
Sullivan’s bid to do part-time work quickly turned into a full-time engagement, followed by a promotion from of counsel to partner as clients "started to fall in love with her," Archer says. "She really was someone who felt comfortable in solving problems and fixing retirement plans that had kind of been in chaos and not well kept up in terms of compliance," Archer says. "She forged relationships with her clients that were real friendships because they knew she really cared about their business and their future." Through the years, Sullivan specialized in compensation and benefits work, including the laws surrounding the Employee Retirement Income Security Act and employee stock ownership plans.
When not practicing, Archer and Sullivan swapped stories over a bowl of M&M’s in Sullivan’s office or with a drink at the bar downstairs, Archer says. At restaurants, Sullivan also had an unmatched penchant for bread and butter that stemmed from her days working in a bakery in North Dakota. "She was a riot," Archer says. "She was nonjudgmental, and the life of every room she entered."
Sullivan’s role on the Children’s Law Center’s board will be hard to fill, says Linda Foreman, the organization’s executive director. "She came on like a hurricane," Foreman says of the late lawyer’s early days on the board in summer 2010. Last year, as head of the board’s development committee, Sullivan helped plan the most successful fund-raising gala and auction in the center’s 18-year history, Foreman says, netting $165,000 for the organization and keeping expenses at $25,000.
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